More than 1.2 million Wisconsinites turn on contact tracing app; 52,000 positive test codes issued

MADISON, Wis. – When the WI Exposure Notification application was set to launch in December, experts called it another tool in the fight against the pandemic, with its effectiveness to be based on how many people opt in.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, more than 1.2 million people have turned on the smart phone app since its rollout.

The app, available for Android and iPhone users, uses Bluetooth to determine if someone is at risk for COVID-19 exposure. It doesn’t track a phone’s location. If a user tests positive for the coronavirus, they can enter a test code into the app, which will anonymously send an alert to their close contacts.

According to DHS, about 52,000 positive test codes have been issued.

App limited by privacy

Between mask-wearing and avoiding crowds, Stephen Cohn said he thought he was doing everything right to avoid COVID, but in late January, his phone told him otherwise.

“Suddenly, I’m just eating dinner, and I get a notification on my phone saying isolate immediately and go get tested,” Cohn said. “The mindset you go through is terrifying, kind of.”

He’s a News 3 Now employee, behind the scenes as a news producer. His phone was doing some behind the scenes work, as well, opted in to the WI Exposure Notification app.

Cohn got the alert on Friday, Jan. 29. After going into the app, he was able to figure out the exposure came around 4 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28. While he did go for a walk that morning to cover news, he said he was working from home by the afternoon.

“I had not been in contact with another human being in the last day,” he said. “I live alone, so how was I exposed?”

Cohn said it could be his apartment neighbor across the wall. According to DHS, the technology doesn’t distinguish between physical barriers, though it would make a signal weaker. The app sends anonymous signals with other phones that are near it for at least 15 minutes. A DHS spokesperson also said a person would not necessarily get an alert in the minutes immediately after a contact to further protect privacy.

The app doesn’t track location, so Cohn can’t say for sure where his exposure came from.

“This is so completely anonymous to the point I don’t know where I got exposed,” he said.

After isolating, he ended up testing negative.

“I can turn it off now, but I still haven’t turned it off because I’m still weary,” Cohn said. “I still want to know just in case I do get exposed.”

DHS encourages people who get the notification to take it seriously, writing in an email that they should “quarantine and self-monitor to protect themselves, their family, and their community. We would also encourage testing them to get a COVID-19 test.”